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How to Build Long-Term Freelancer-Client Relationships

We received a lot of good feedback on Laura’s previous post on Horkey HandBook – the one where she revealed what makes a good pitch from the perspective of a hiring manager.

So we asked Laura to write a follow up about the dos and don’ts of freelancer-client relationships. What makes a client keep working with the same freelancer long term? And what makes them say “no, thanks” and start looking for new collaborators.

Here are the rules of how keep your freelancing clients coming back for more.

So you finally landed that lucrative freelance writing project you have been pitching yourself for. This is an exciting opportunity and certainly one worthy of celebration, but you also shouldn’t stop there.

As a freelance writer myself, my average client retention rate for retainers is 14 months. Two of my clients have been working with me for three years. The reality is that landing and keep a client are two different skills. Both of them are equally important skills to cultivate if you’re a freelancer.

In addition to working as a writer, I’ve also worked extensively as a digital project manager. In the course of doing that, I’ve worked with hundreds of freelancers.

Because of that background, I have some important advice that can help you to not only land that client, but keep the client, too.

I have seen far too many freelance writers drop off because they neglect to follow through on all the promises they made in their original pitch. I have shared in a previous post that I worked with just over a dozen freelance writers on a project in which each writer was responsible for turning in one article per week.

From that experience, a number of writers who submitted through the test phase of the project were paid for their work, but ultimately removed from the project.

Here are the things that you should and should not do as you start a working relationship with a new client:

Do: Ask Questions

Make sure that you ask any clarifying questions about instructions, login information and materials the client doesn’t want to see inside your piece before you get started working. Far too much editing time is wasted on going back and correcting things that never should have happened in the first place.

As a great example, some of the writers on the project I was working for missed the clear instructions to include a subtitle in their article.

Yes, it might seem like a minor issue for an editor or a project manager to go back and add a subtitle or ask for one. But when they are working on dozens of articles at the same time, this minor inconvenience can become a major headache, and it definitely slows down the editing process.

It’s far better to clarify everything upfront and decrease the amount of email tag that people have to play to get the project completed.

Not sure what niches you can specialize in as a freelance writer? We’ve done some research and brainstorming for you, and we came up with over 200 niches to choose from. Here’s the list:

Don’t: Be Condescending

This should go without saying, but there was a writer on our project who wrote snarky responses to comments in the Google document of the piece she had turned in. Initially, as the project manager, I suspected that these were simple comments that were being taken out of context, but when an editor and the owner of the company came to me separately and privately to air their concerns about it, I knew the writer had to go.

It’s unfortunate when someone who has decent writing ability cannot handle criticism and acts in a condescending manner.

Although you might think you know better (or you might think the client is making a mistake grammatically or otherwise), the best approach is to bring this up gently, but don’t push the issue. If the client has a specific way of wanting things done, you should not impede that by trying to tell them what you think they should do instead. Always be professional.

If you truly don’t agree with the client or feel that you’re being pushed around, make a comment without burning bridges or bow out of the project gracefully. For example, if you’re going to defend your use of the Oxford comma, that’s fine unless the client has guidelines specifically saying they don’t use that format.

Do: Respect the Deadline

If you have a problem with a deadline you have been assigned, reach out to the person managing the project. In many cases, the deadline can be slightly flexible. However, you shouldn’t ask for an extension one hour before the deadline is up.

Instead, just as with asking for instructions at the outset of a project, clarify whether or not you can meet their deadlines. That’s the mark of a professional writer.

If you are going to work for this client regularly, it’s better to know upfront if you are going to have deadlines every single day or week, so that you can appropriately arrange your schedule to keep up with them.

If you miss a deadline, it tells the client that you may be disorganized or you just simply don’t care about their requests. Neither of these are things you want to earn in your reputation.

Don’t: Copy Other People’s Work

Unless you have been given express permission to use another source or copy and paste it directly, the words you send to a client should always be your own. I am amazed at how many people turn in duplicated content and expect that it will fly under the radar.

Knowing ahead of time that your client will not tolerate duplicated content is something you should assume with every single project. It’s worth purchasing the very inexpensive searches from Copyscape to verify that everything you said are your own words.

Never try to get away with duplicating content as this can also lead to further back-and-forth and frustrations on the part of the client. In many cases in which I have served as a project manager, people who engage in sending duplicated content even once may be terminated from the project without notice. This is a great way to lose an otherwise wonderful client so I strongly advise against doing it. It’s simply not worth it.

Do: Respond to Edit Requests in a Timely Manner

There is no specific rule that you have to get back to a client who wants you to revise a piece within an hour or so. But in some cases, I was monitoring writers to see how long it took them to respond to comments from editors to indicate that they were working on it and how long it actually took them to follow up.

Without any prompting or guidance, some writers would go five or six days without even responding to verify that they had seen the editor’s comments. This leads to major lags in the management of any type of a project.

This is a problem for clients even if you’re the only writer on the project, because they may have their own internal processes to review and approve a piece after you’ve incorporated the edits.

Holding everyone up is not something you want to be known for.

Make sure that as soon as you see the comment from your client that they want edits made, that you respond back and indicate a reasonable timeline for you to incorporate them.

I don’t believe that any client should expect that you will be accessible via email or on your phone all hours of the day, but giving them a window of when they can expect to see a response and the edits from you is very professional.

Do: Exit the Project Gracefully (If You Have To)

Unfortunately, several writers who showed a great deal of promise ultimately were let go from the project.

Those who understood the reasons for their termination and handled it professionally left without burning any bridges. In fact, I’d be open to working with them again in the future, simply because they may not have been a fit for just this one client.

However, other people handled this situation very inappropriately, got upset, or left unnecessary remarks in my email inbox. This doesn’t serve any positive purpose and may cause people to avoid working with you in the future.

It might seem like the content marketing world is so big that you can afford to make these kinds of comments, but it’s not. Two people were rejected from this project after checking in with their former clients. So remember that the experience you give to one client can have ripple effects.

It’s far better to remain professional even if you are disappointed.

Try to understand the feedback provided to you by an editor or the project manager so that you can determine what you should improve on in the future. In some cases, there may be very little that you could have done to prevent it from happening. But in other cases, it’s important to be reflective of your individual situation and aware of things that you might have been able to manage and do more effectively in the future.

The same goes if you need to leave the project for your own reasons. Don’t ditch a deadline at the last minute if you do opt to leave. Round things out professionally.

One of the writers on the project I have referenced throughout this article received edit requests from two separate editors and failed to incorporate them, only responding a few days later that she would no longer be able to finish the article at all. This left the entire team in a lurch and I had to get the article reassigned very quickly.

Since there wasn’t much to work with from the original article, someone had to start over fresh and under a tighter deadline. This puts additional stress on people and can be easily prevented by remaining professional.

If you need to exit a project for any reason, simply inform someone well in advance and don’t leave them waiting to receive information from you, such as a completed project

A great way of handling this was done by one of our editors, who needed to step down for family reasons several months into the project.

She gave me an end-by date, after which she would no longer be able to receive additional assignments, allowing her to process everything that was already on her plate without stalling our procedures anymore. This was a great way to give me and the team a heads up so that we could plan accordingly and find someone else to serve in the role.

Do: Learn Best Practices

When you work for any client for a long period of time, you will learn their likes and dislikes. You can also learn a lot from the feedback that they give you on your articles or the articles of others.

Incorporate this to make your own life easier when you are writing for the client. If you know that certain topics are off limits or if they have a particular preference for how often keywords are included, note this the first time around so you don’t make the same mistakes over and over.

Having a consistent approach towards writing for any client can be extremely valuable.

What have you done that makes you retainer or long-term client relationship work?

What are the reasons your current clients love working with you? I’ve found that doubling down on your strong suits attracts more of your ideal clients and leads to an enjoyable freelance lifestyle.

Laura Pennington launched her freelance writing and project management career in 2012 after burning out as an inner city teacher. She scaled her business to six figures in less than 18 months and now hosts the Better Biz Academy podcast with advice for freelancers on landing ideal clients, marketing, and work/life balance. She can be found at www.betterbizacademy.com

Gina Horkey

Gina Horkey


Gina Horkey is a married, millennial mama from Minnesota. Additionally, she’s the founder of Horkey HandBook and loves helping others find or become a kickass virtual assistant. Gina’s background includes making a living as a professional writer, an online business marketing consultant and a decade of experience in the financial services industry.

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